Jack London’s People Of The Abyss

Jack London’s People Of The Abyss

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart


peopleoftheabyssThe aged carpenter, well beyond his working years, foraged among the festering garbage in the urban gutter for a bit of orange peel, a few grape stems, a bit of moldering bread, bits and pieces to sustain life for yet one more day.

Jack London, one of our greatest literary figures, witnessed this scene in 1902, posing as an unemployed American sailor among the teeming outcasts of industrial civilization in the notorious East End of London.

The citizens of this City of Degradation lived in a brutal symbiosis, dog-eat-dog Social Darwinism at its worst. Industry drew people to the impoverished city from the impoverished countryside. The Abyss, a human black hole, sucked in those no longer employable due to age, infirmity, industrial accident or illness.

London tells of homeless people being rousted by police throughout the night for attempting to lie down for a few moments of tortured sleep. He observes men standing all the night in heavy rain waiting for the “casual house” to open, where one could earn hospital scraps and a filthy bed in return for degrading work.  He witnesses emaciated children’s lives cut short from breathing the noxious, sulphurous air. He writes of thousands living in dread of old age, disease or incarceration in the purgatorial workhouses.

At the time, five hundred hereditary peers owned one fifth of English farmland and spent 32% of the country’s gross national product on wasteful luxury.  In contrast, the average citizen worked tirelessly in order to merely survive. London argues that an Inuit of the Far North produced much less than the average Englishman but seldom suffered any lack of necessities. The Englishman produced far more than the Inuit but continually suffered hunger, exposure, disease and job related injuries. One would be better off living as a savage. If this is the best that industrial society can do, he asks, what could be worse.

Jack London attacks the callousness of those who profess belief in Christ but, “For the rest of the week they riot about on the rents and profits which come to them from the East End stained with the blood of children.”

The people of the East End could also be their own worst enemies, producing large numbers of children but having no means to support them. Their meager incomes too often wasted in the pubs, where they drank themselves into oblivion. Only one young fireman interviewed by London understands that he can barely sustain himself on his meager wages and could never support a wife and children. 

Conditions such as London observed continue to prevail in urban Petri dishes throughout the world today.

Supply side economics did not work in London in 1902. Only despair “trickled down” to the people of the Abyss. The growth of labor unions, together with the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society have somewhat ameliorated conditions in the US that equated with those of the Abyss. However, there are forces at work today that would recreate such abominable conditions and return us back to the days of Laissez-Faire economics, the slave-like conditions of child labor and the sweatshop.

Even now, several multi-billion dollar corporations refuse to pay their employees adequate wages. We may not have a pub on every corner, as in the Abyss, but drug dealers prowl our streets and huge numbers exist in a drug infused limbo fueled by a pharmaceutical industry that corrupts the media in order to promote treatments for imaginary or exaggerated ailments.

One can easily conclude that the votaries of Ayn Rand would derive some smug satisfaction from the massive human suffering rampant in the abysses of the future. Even more ominously, a recent NASA report concludes that industrial civilization itself will collapse in coming decades, as a result of unsustainable resource depletion and unequal wealth distribution. Perhaps the abyss awaits us all.


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